Nicholas Jones

Nicholas Jones is the New Zealand Herald’s education reporter.

Online and free - lessons for the future

One person who has seen the benefits of online learning is Aucklander Mike Bailey, who is taking several university courses without setting foot on campus. Photo / Richard Robinson
One person who has seen the benefits of online learning is Aucklander Mike Bailey, who is taking several university courses without setting foot on campus. Photo / Richard Robinson

New Zealand's largest university is about to give away its teaching free as the Government calls the tertiary sector together to discuss whether such an approach is the way forward.

Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce will host the Innovations in Tertiary Education Delivery Summit next week, where the global education phenomenon of "Moocs" (massive open online courses) will take centre stage.

The University of Auckland will use the event to launch its first Moocs, joining other New Zealand institutions.

The courses generally take four to six weeks, have no entry requirements and are largely free.

They enable someone sitting in their lounge in Auckland to take a course offered by a top university such as Harvard.

The Government has issued a discussion paper that says modern technology could affect education as much as previous shifts including the invention of the printing press.

From a learner's perspective, their potential is huge, offering largely free and on-demand education that can be far more individualised than many university courses which are rising in cost each year.

For governments, they give an opportunity to educate people without having to pay billions in subsidies and related support such as student loans.

The benefits are less clear-cut for tertiary institutions. Opportunities include showcasing areas of expertise and offering specialised "niche" courses.

But there are big unknowns.

Unlike other New Zealand universities, the University of Otago says it will not join the Moocs movement, partly because of concerns about viability and sustainability.

The key question is whether institutions can make money through Moocs, or whether giving away expertise and content free will become self-destructive.

The Government's discussion paper notes the suggestion that the main rationale for institutions signing up is the "fear of missing out" in a rapidly growing area.

IT worker says online courses let him upskill from home

For Aucklander Mike Bailey the rise of "Moocs" (massive open online courses) represents a paradigm shift in education.

Mr Bailey will shortly complete two courses offered by top United States universities, free and in his own time from his own home.

At the weekend, the 56-year-old IT professional submitted his last assignment for a Python programming course offered by Rice University through the Coursera.org consortium, which has 625 institutional partners and 615 courses.

He is also four weeks into an introduction to music production offered by the renowned Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts - something he took out of personal interest.

The programming course took him about 10 hours a week over nine weeks. Each week, a new group of videos was released to be viewed - something like going to an old-fashioned lecture.

A couple of quizzes would also have to be completed, and assignments consisted of having to write computer programs - and peer-reviewing other students' work.

"You would go to a page and run their program, and then they would ask you, 'Does it display this at the top of the page, does it do this, does it do that?'

"And you would select a pull-down menu - yes, it does; no, it doesn't. And if it didn't then you had to give reasons why not."

Mr Bailey said he would not have time to attend a university short-course. The Rice University course was the perfect way to upskill.

"I have been in the IT field for about 20 years now, and if there's one constant it is change. The skill set that I had five, 10 years ago is not nearly as applicable as new skills."

- NZ Herald

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